You go to the hospital to recover from an illness or injury, not to experience additional harm. But according to recent statistics, getting hurt or sick while at the hospital happens too often. Failing to file a hospital lawsuit within the statute of limitations can have disastrous consequences for your legal rights. Once the statute of limitations expires, it is virtually impossible to maintain any lawsuit against the hospital, regardless of how severe your injuries are or how strong the evidence of liability might be otherwise.
Like other lawsuits, a lawsuit against a hospital must begin within the applicable statute of limitations. As an injured patient, you and your medical malpractice lawyer are responsible for initiating any lawsuit within the time prescribed by law.
The Leapfrog Group reports:
- Up to 1,000 people a day and as many as 200,000 people annually die because of a hospital error resulting in an injury or infection
- Medicare patients have a 25 percent chance of injury or death while in the hospital
- About one in 25 people in the hospital will develop a preventable infection
- Many of the errors hospital staff make are preventable
Hospitals are not immune from lawsuits when their leadership or employees commit careless acts.
Defining Statutes of Limitations in Lawsuits
A statute of limitations is simply a deadline for initiating a lawsuit that has been codified into law and is enforceable by the courts. Every state creates its own statutes of limitations and chooses the duration for each.
Not only do states set the duration of their respective statutes of limitations, but they may also, and do, create different statutes of limitations for different types of lawsuits.
For example, in New York, the statute of limitations for most actions based on an allegation of negligence is three years. However, if you intend to bring a lawsuit alleging a breach of a written contract, you have six years to file your case. Other types of lawsuits and legal actions have different statutes of limitations.
The statute of limitations is satisfied upon the filing of the complaint. The complaint contains the factual allegations and legal assertions upon which your claim for legal relief rests.
Once filed, the complaint will need to be served upon the defendant—the one against whom you are seeking monetary damages or other relief—within a reasonable amount of time.
New York’s Statutes of Limitations in Hospital Lawsuits
When you are injured or become ill at a hospital, one of two statutes of limitations could apply to your case. Which statute applies depends on the circumstances of your injury and the individual or entity whose carelessness led to that injury.
Although the two statutes of limitations are similar, they are not identical. Adherence to the appropriate statute of limitations can ensure your ability to seek damages.
General Negligence Not Caused by a Health Care Provider
If you were hurt by the negligence of someone other than a health care provider or someone providing medical care, then New York’s general negligence statute of limitations would apply to your lawsuit. Using this statute of limitations means you would have three years from the accident date to initiate your case against the hospital.
For example, suppose that you are walking through the hospital and slip and fall on a wet floor with no warning signs nearby. You suffer a hip injury in the fall and require surgery.
This situation would lead to a negligence-based lawsuit, and therefore, you would need to file the case against the hospital within three years of your slip and fall accident date.
Negligent or Deficient Medical Care by a Health Care Provider
If you are hurt or become ill because a medical care provider, such as a doctor or nurse, gave you substandard care, it would be considered medical malpractice.
The statute of limitations for medical malpractice in New York is two years and six months. This period begins to run either on the date the malpractice occurred or when a course of continuous treatment ended.
For instance, suppose the hospital admitted you for a routine procedure. The surgeon who performed your procedure made an error and carelessly left a foreign object in you, and they don’t discover it until you manifested signs of an infection.
In this case, you would have two years and six months from the surgery date to file your lawsuit.
Other Statutes of Limitations
If you have some other legal cause of action against a hospital, then that action may have a different statute of limitations. For instance, if you allege that the hospital breached a written or implied contract with you, then the six-year statute of limitations applicable to breach of contract actions would govern your case.
You and your medical malpractice lawyer must thoroughly understand the nature of your claims and the time limitations that apply to your case. Saying that you mistakenly applied the wrong statute of limitations to your action is not a valid defense if you exceed the time limit applicable to your case.
Running of the Statutes of Limitations
Whichever statute of limitations applies to your situation, it usually begins on the date the injury incident occurred. Once the statute of limitations begins to run, it will usually continue to count down without interruption or pause until it expires completely.
To illustrate, if you slipped and fell on March 1, 2023, while at a hospital, you would have a negligence cause of action against the hospital. A three-year statute of limitations governs this action, and it would begin to run on the same date that you slipped and fell. Absent unusual circumstances, it would run out on March 1, 2026.
Similarly, suppose that you suffered harm on March 1, 2023, when a nurse did not correctly sterilize an injection site before injecting you with an unsterilized needle. The medical malpractice statute of limitations applicable in your case would begin to run on that date.
Again, absent some exceptional or unforeseen event taking place, the statute of limitations for your case would expire on or about September 1, 2025.
When the Statute of Limitations Expires, Your Legal Rights Run out Too?
Any competent medical malpractice lawyer will know that their client’s legal rights are severely limited once the statute of limitations runs out.
While you can still file a lawsuit after the statute of limitations runs out, the hospital or other defendant can raise the expired statute of limitations as a defense. Once raised, it is a practical certainty that the court will dismiss the lawsuit, and you will not recover any compensation.
Defendants, like hospitals, know the legal ramifications of an expired statute of limitations for injured patients. Some unscrupulous defendants will drag out settlement talks until the statute of limitations expires for the injured patient. Once this happens, the defendant has no incentive to settle, and the plaintiff has no ability to pursue a lawsuit.
Retaining a medical malpractice lawyer soon after your injury event is one of the best ways to protect yourself against violating the statute of limitations. Your attorney can accurately calculate the statute of limitations applicable to your case and take steps to ensure that they file your lawsuit in time.
The Discovery Rule
Commencing the statute of limitations on a specific date assumes that you knew or had reason to know that you received an injury on that date. But not all injuries occur in an obvious or easily recognizable manner.
For instance, a foreign object left inside a surgical site may not immediately cause any discomfort or symptoms. Similarly, your surgeon may have performed your operation in a negligent manner, but this may not become apparent until some time later.
The discovery rule operates by tolling, or pausing, the commencement of the statute of limitations in your case until you become aware that you got injured. The rule also starts the statute of limitations on the date a reasonable person in your circumstances should have become aware of your injury.
In the case of a foreign object left inside you after surgery, the discovery rule gives you one year from the date the foreign object was discovered or should have been discovered to file your lawsuit. This alternate time period functions in the same way and with the same effect as the regular statute of limitations.
This rule gives you additional time to begin a lawsuit when your injury is not immediately apparent but does not give you license to ignore symptoms or signs that you have been hurt. You must still exercise reasonable diligence in getting evaluated and treated if you notice signs of an injury.
Unable to Exercise Your Rights
Suppose your hospital injury results in you not being physically or mentally capable of understanding your legal rights and taking action. In that case, the statute of limitations may be tolled until you have recovered.
For instance, if a medical error causes you to fall into a coma, the statute of limitations for any medical malpractice case you might have would only start to run once you emerge from your coma and realize the nature of your injury.
Note that this exception will only apply when a competent professional makes a valid physical or mental diagnosis. Feeling unmotivated or being in pain will not extend the statute of limitations.
Finally, if you are receiving a course of treatment at a hospital from a doctor or surgeon, the statute of limitations for an injury would not begin to run until the course of treatment ended. This scenario would be true even if the first round of treatment was the round that caused you injury, and every subsequent round was administered to you correctly.
Suppose that you are hospitalized for severe injuries that require multiple surgeries to address. One of the first surgeries you undergo is performed incorrectly, and you suffer an internal injury.
You undergo several additional surgeries, each performed competently and carefully, and six months later, your surgeries are complete. In this case, the statute of limitations would begin to run at the point of completion of your last surgery.
Other circumstances could justify an extension of the statute of limitations to file suit against a hospital. The best practice is to hire a medical malpractice lawyer quickly and avoid running afoul of the statute of limitations.
But even if you believe you may have exceeded the statute of limitations, you should still talk with an experienced attorney about your options.
Other Ways a New York Medical Malpractice Lawyer Can Help You
When you retain an attorney to help you with your claim against a hospital, your attorney can do much more for you than ensure that your suit gets filed in compliance with the statute of limitations.
Your lawyer can investigate the circumstances surrounding your accident or injury, collect the evidence needed to prove your claim, depose witnesses with knowledge of the incident, and represent you in court. Your medical malpractice lawyer can also engage in settlement negotiations with the hospital and other responsible parties while simultaneously preparing to file your case. Your personal injury lawyer in Bronx can do this while you focus on your recovery and return to good health.